Air India flight 182

30th anniversary

Written by Anirudh Bhattacharyya | Designed by Vignesh Radhakrishnan


Explosion mid-air

On June 23, 1985, the Air India Boeing 747, named after the Kushan dynasty emperor Kanishka, took off from Toronto for a journey that was scheduled to include stops at Montreal’s Mirabel airport, London’s Heathrow, Delhi’s Palam and Bombay’s Sahar. After the flight number 182 arrived in Montreal, more passengers boarded to make for full complement of 329, including 22 crew members.

The plane departed for England for the next leg. It made contact with the Shannon Air Traffic Control Center, but five minutes later, vanished off the radar screen.

A bomb, sent via Vancouver, placed in cargo had exploded. Remnants of the plane were found off the Irish coast. There were no survivors. It has been attributed mainly to the terrorist outfit Babbar Khalsa, while the Canadian Commission of Inquiry also mentioned the International Sikh Youth Federation.

Kanishka bombing still haunts kin

Susheel Gupta had expected to accompany his mother, Ramwati, on a vacation to India, but his father was unable to procure more than one ticket on the flight and he stayed behind with his family in Toronto.

The then 12-year-old and his brother were awakened by their father that Sunday, and told that the plane his mother was traveling on was missing.

That, of course, was Air India flight 182 flying from Montreal to London, the aircraft named Kanishka, blown up by Khalistani terrorists on June 23, 1985.

Some of its remnants were strewn over the coast of Ireland's Cork region, the rest sank into the North Sea. All 307 passengers and 22 crew members aboard were killed.


Susheel Gupta recalls being "very angry", unable to understand "why someone would kill so many innocent people?"

Photo on the left :  Passport photo of Susheel Gupta's mother and Bal Gupta's wife, Ramwati, a victim of the Kanishka bombing. (Courtesy Susheel Gupta)


Photo on bottom right : Lata Pada (front) with her family. Her husband Vishnu and daughters Brinda and Arti were killed in the Kanishka bombing. (Courtesy Lata Pada)

Two weeks before that tragedy, Lata Pada, then living in Sudbury, Ontario, had travelled to India to prepare for a Bharatnatyam performance.


Her husband and two daughters were to join her; tragically they boarded flight 182.

Three decades later, she mused "Every year, the anniversary of the Air India Kanishka bombing is very emotionally draining.
On a personal level, the grieving continues as it is so much about the void in one's life which can never be filled as well as the unrealised potential of the future."

Her daughters would have been in their 40s, possibly married, she may have had grandchildren.


John Major, then a lawyer in Calgary, can "vividly remember" hearing a news report on his car radio: "The way it was described by the announcer, I wasn't even sure that it took off from Canada."


For over 15 years, the Canadian Government was busy pretending it was someone else's problem, layering on the trauma for the families of the victims.

Bal Gupta, who heads the Air India Victims' Families Association, said the principal source of comfort they had was when the family members started meeting each week after the tragedy.


"We cried together, consoled each other, we supported each other."

Lata Pada (R) pauses while taking part in a news conference with Bal Gupta in Ottawa November 23, 2005. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

This incident, he pointed out, per capita took a greater human toll in Canada than 9/11 in the United States.

"29 families were completely wiped out, 32 persons lost their spouse and children, seven couples lost their children, two children around the age of 10 lost their parents," Bal Gupta, also Susheel's father, said.

Of the victims, 268 were Canadian citizens, mostly of Indian origin and another 24 Indians.


Bodies of the victims of the Air India jumbo jet which crashed 150 miles off the coast of Cork, Ireland are wrapped in shrouds on the floor of the Cork Regional Hospital June 24, 1985. REUTERS/Cork Examiner/Denis Minihane (IRELAND)

But things changed somewhat, and the new Government headed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed a Commission of Inquiry, headed by that Calgary lawyer, John Major, who had just retired from the Canadian Supreme Court.

His report, submitted just prior to the 25th anniversary of the bombing, was pointedly called Air India Flight 182: A Canadian Tragedy.

Major said, "The Canadian response immediately after the bombing was very mediocre. The Government practically did nothing except send two or three lower bureaucrats to Limerick."


The tragedy finally entered the public consciousness, as memorials were constructed in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Ottawa (there's also one in Ireland but none in India) and Harper formally apologised to the families.


It also led to the Kanishka Project, under which the Government funds research into aspects of terrorism.


As Justice Major said, "I think it (the report) was worthwhile for the people who suffered loss. It, at least, showed them that the Government, Canadians cared about what happened to other Canadians. It was trying to repair the damage many years after the event."

A door from the Air India jumbo jet that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean floats in the sea near Cork, Ireland June 25, 1985.   REUTERS/POOL (IRELAND)


An RAF helicopter crewman carries a "Cabbage Patch" doll picked up from the sea during the search for bodies and wreckage. REUTERS/Rob Taggart (IRELAND)

Five more years have passed, and new incidents of terrorism worldwide continue to anguish family members. "Terrorism is not under control, that's a major concern," Bal Gupta said.

Lata Pada agreed, "The Air India anniversary is also a chilling reminder that
terrorism is very much a part of our global reality today."


The families found their own way of coping. Lata Pada found it in dance: "Dance has been my lifeline through this terrible loss in my life.

I've always been a dancer, I started training when I was a very young girl. So when the tragedy occurred, for me, the most natural and intuitive thing to do was to go back to my dance."

Today she is the best-known exponent of an Indian dance form in Canada, for which she has received the country's highest civilian honour.

Meanwhile, Susheel Gupta "decided to work in the justice system." Today, he is the Vice-Chairperson of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in Ottawa.

A woman touches the name of a family member on the memorial to the victims of Air India Flight 182 on the Toronto waterfront June 23, 2007.  REUTERS/J.P. Moczulski (CANADA)

Missed Connections

In the final report of the Commission of Inquiry, Justice John Major was blunt: "This remains the largest mass murder in Canadian history, and was the result of a cascading series of errors."


Some were egregious, as the report states. While a Canadian Security Intelligence Service or CSIS had a surveillance team present when plotters "detonated a device in the woods near Duncan, causing a loud explosive sound, the sound was misinterpreted and the surveillance report was ignored." The Royal Canadian Mounted Police or RCMP "did not forward to CSIS the June 1st Telex that set out Air India's own intelligence, forecasting a June terrorist attempt to bomb an Air India flight by means of explosives hidden in checked baggage."

Officers, Irish sailors and rescue workers look on as bodies  are lined up on the docks. REUTERS/Rob Taggart

Irish sailors and rescue workers carry ashore the body of one victim.  REUTERS/STRINGER

An officer watches as Irish sailors and rescue workers carry ashore the body of one victim. REUTERS/Rob Taggart

On the day of the bombing, all police dogs and their handlers from the RCMP's canine bomb sniffing unit were absent from all Canadian airports since they were all at a training session in Vancouver. "In Montreal, where a back-up dog was available, it was not even called into the airport until after the plane had departed."


While cargo wasn't X-rayed at Canadian airports, Air India had its own conveyor belt with an X-ray machine. However, the equipment at Toronto airport broke down that day after only part of the checked luggage was screened. The bomb was placed in an unaccompanied brown Samsonite bag sent from Vancouver but "neither Transport Canada nor Air India were prepared for the possibility of an unaccompanied interlined bag containing a bomb that could be placed on an Air India flight." The report emphasises that "Passenger-baggage reconciliation - something that had been successfully implemented in Canada on an ad hoc basis prior to the bombing - would have prevented the bomb from being placed on the flight."


There also existed a report that this specific flight was going to be targeted by extremists. In an interview, Major said, "A lot of things, in hindsight, if they'd been done properly, you have to think the result would have been different."